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The Modern Cowboy
By John R. Erickson, Kristine C. Erickson
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2004 John R. Erickson
All rights reserved.
What Is a Cowboy?
In 1978 and 1979 I was working as a cowboy on a ranch in Beaver County, Oklahoma. In the depths of January, I drove over to the next ranch and found my good friend and cowboy companion, Jake Parker. "Jake," I said, "we're about to starve out. We just can't make it on six hundred dollars a month. Inflation is killing us and I'm so tired of feeding cattle seven days a week, I could scream." Jake nodded.
In February I caught Jake as he was coming in from his feed run. "Jake," I said, "we're just barely getting by. If everyone stays healthy and the car doesn't break down, we'll make it. But if something goes wrong ... I guess I'd better start looking around for another line of work."
Jake nodded. He understood.
In March I helped Jake do some cattle work. It was the first time we had been horseback since fall. The day was warm and most of the snow had melted off the sandhills. Our horses felt good and so did we. "Parker," I said, "I'm looking forward to spring roundup season, aren't you?" He smiled and said, "You bet."
In April we were riding on a roundup crew, laughing and joking with the other cowboys, drinking in the spring air, working our horses, and playing with our ropes. And I said, "You know, Parker, we're lucky that somebody will pay us money for doing this." Jake laughed and said, "Yalp."
I have met the American cowboy on ranches in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles: ridden with him and worked beside him; eaten lunch with him on the ground and drunk water from his cup. I am tempted to describe him as I have seen him described in books: "Merely folks, just a plain everyday bowlegged human." That is a marvelous description, and very quotable. However, the temptation to use it merely points out the degree to which, on the subject of cowboys, we have come to rely on books and observations of the past.
The fact is, I have known only one bowlegged cowboy, and I think he was born that way. Legend tells us that cowboys are supposed to have legs warped by long days in the saddle, and maybe seventy years ago they did. Today they don't. We can begin our description of the modern cowboy by saying that, at least on one point of anatomy, he ain't what he used to be.
The cowboy I know is a working man. He is defined by his work, which should not be confused with the term "job." Cowboy work is more than a job; it is a life-style and a medium of expression. Remove the cowboy from his working environment and you have someone else, someone who resembles a cowboy in outward appearance but who, to one degree or another, is an imposter. Standing on a street corner, the cowboy is just an ordinary human. But out in the pasture, when he's ahorseback and holds a rope in his hands, he assumes the qualities that have made him a legend.
The fact that the cowboy is defined by his work has made him a difficult subject to study. To see him at his best, you almost have to work with him day after day, and to understand what he does in his work, you have to possess a fundamental knowledge of the skills of his profession. The people who are in the best position to observe and discuss the working cowboy are the men who work with him every day—other cowboys. Unfortunately, most cowboys don't write, and most writers don't work on ranches.
The cowboy doesn't own property. Owners of ranch land go by various titles, among them rancher, cattleman, and stockman. The rancher owns the land, manages the operation, and makes decisions about buying and selling. Of course you can find instances where the two roles overlap. Some ranchers work beside their cowboys, and some cowboys are permitted to make management decisions. On small ranching operations, family members function in both capacities. But as a general rule it's safe to say that ranchers and cowboys are not the same breed. The term cowboy, as I use it, means a wage laborer who has mastered the skills needed in working around cattle, while the term rancher implies ownership and management.
In the cow lot or on a roundup crew the social differences between rancher and cowboy don't mean much, but elsewhere they are clearly defined. Ranchers are often prominent leaders in the community; cowboys are not. Ranchers often sit on governing boards of businesses, churches, and schools; cowboys don't. Ranchers are frequently the subject of articles in livestock journals, while the cowboys are rarely mentioned. The rancher and his wife might belong to the country club, but the cowboy and his wife won't. The rancher has his circle of friends, the cowboy has his, and they don't often overlap.
There is one difference between them that goes right to the heart of the matter: the rancher can take the day off or go into town whenever he wishes, but the cowboy can't. The cowboy's life is tied to the rhythms of animals: a cow that must be milked twice a day, chickens that must be turned out in the morning and shut up at night, horses that must be fed or watered, pregnant heifers that must be watched, and, in winter, cows that must be fed. The rancher and the cowboy may dress alike, talk alike, and even think alike, but at six o'clock in the evening, one is still working in the barn while the other attends a meeting in town.
Though the cowboy is a working man, he has little in common with the urban blue- collar worker. As we have already observed, cowboy work is not just a job, with established work days, certain hours, and guaranteed holidays. Since he lives where he works, and since he deals with animals instead of machines, the cowboy is never really off work. He is on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year. The work isn't always hard, but as a friend once observed to me, "It's derned sure steady." A calving heifer, a prairie fire, a sick horse may have him up at any hour of the day or night, and in this business there is no such thing as time-and-a-half for overtime.
Unlike urban blue-collar workers, cowboys don't belong to a union, and they probably never will. The cowboy life attracts a special type of individual who can shift for himself and endure isolation, and one who thrives on physical hardship, a certain amount of danger, and low wages. These are not the qualities of a joiner, but of a loner. You might even go so far as to say that there's a little bit of outlaw in most of them—not quite socialized, like a spirited horse that is never completely broke and gentle, even though he may take the bit and the saddle. Some cowboys stay in the profession simply because they don't fit anywhere else. They tried other jobs and couldn't adapt, or they went into business for themselves and failed. They returned to cowboying because it was in their bone and blood.
This stubborn, independent quality of the cowboy has fascinated the American public and has contributed to his status as a myth and a legend. We Americans like to think of ourselves as a free and independent people, ready at any moment to tell the boss, the mayor, or the president himself to go straight to blazes, but this is more of a dream than a reality. Most of us are indentured to mortgage payments and live in terror of an IRS audit. Perhaps the cowboy, riding his horse across an endless prairie, has become a symbol of what we used to be—or at least what we think we used to be—and of what we would be if we could. The cowboy doesn't have to punch a time clock, drive through snarls of traffic every morning, shave, wear a tie, or participate in office rituals to gain advancement. When he gets tired of the scenery, or if the boss crowds him too close, he packs his few possessions in a pickup and horse trailer, and moves on to another ranch.
In the American cowboy we find qualities we admire—simplicity, independence, physical strength, courage, peace of mind, and self respect—but which, to one degree or another, we have surrendered in order to gain something else. These qualities have made the cowboy the most powerful mythical character in our folklore, one that reaches to the very core of our identity as a people. Even though some political analysts have tarnished the word "cowboy" in recent years, using it as a slur against three presidents from western states (Johnson, Reagan, and George W. Bush), one suspects that the man on horseback will outlive his detractors.
The typical cowboy, if we may speak of such an animal, bears scant resemblance to either the old Hollywood version or the more recent political stereotype. He doesn't carry a pistol, strum a guitar, or burst into song at the end of the day. He has never rescued a maiden in distress or cleaned the outlaws out of the saloon. He can ride a bucking horse, but he can also get bucked off. He can rope a calf in the pasture, but he can also burn three loops before he makes the catch. In his working environment, he is dressed in blue jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, boots, western hat, and a vest. He looks good in these clothes, like an animal in its skin. In his work he moves with ease and grace, and sitting astride his horse he exudes confidence and authority. We are tempted to say that he is handsome, even though he might lack the physical endowments we usually associate with that term.
But take him off his horse, throw him into a bathtub, scrub him down, put him in a set of "good" clothes, and send him to town, and we will meet an entirely different man. All at once he becomes graceless and awkward. He isn't wearing his work hat and we see that he is getting bald, or if he has a good head of hair, it looks as though he has plastered it with lard and run a rake through it. His eyes, which outside are naturally set in to a squint, seem puffy in fluorescent light, and they don't sparkle. His "good" clothes are appalling, and we can hardly keep from laughing at him.
The mythology and legend of the cowboy begin in this humble human vessel, neither a myth nor a legend. He is an ordinary mortal. If we stopped at this point, we would have performed the ritual known as debunking, so popular now in some circles: a notable figure is taken like a buck deer, strung up, skinned and gutted, and held up naked for all to see. But I'm not setting out to debunk the cowboy. If he sometimes falls short of our expectations, he will surpass them when we see him at his best. And he is at his best when he is at his work. Ultimately, the cowboy is what he does.
So what is a cowboy? Is he a heroic figure or just a common laborer? I've seen both sides, and I think it would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on one side or the other. If we view him only as a symbol and a mythical figure, then we lose contact with his humanness and cover poverty and hardship with little homilies about the "honor" of being a cowboy. But neither do we want to strip him down to enzymes and electrons or to present him as just another human fop doomed to mediocrity and failure, for this view would deny that he can rise above himself through displays of skill, strength, and courage. And that would be false.
If the cowboy is a hero, then we will want to know the price he pays for this honor. If he is a common man, we will want to know why he has fascinated our people for more than a hundred years. For the moment let us content ourselves with this definition: The cowboy is a common laborer with heroic tendencies and a sense of humor.CHAPTER 2
What He Looks Like, What He Wears
The cowboys I have known were pretty much average-sized fellows, rarely very tall, very short, or very heavy. Perhaps this physical description fits a national average and would be the same in other professions and trades, but I suspect there is more to it than that. If you observe people in a public place, such as an airport or a bus station, you will notice that there are a lot of tall and short men in this world. If you observe physical shapes in a restaurant, you will note that many of our countrymen are chunky. Yet, on a roundup crew composed of full-time cowboys, you don't see these extremes of physical types, which makes me think that there is something in the nature of the work that repels the very short, the very tall, and the overweight. Maybe fat men lack the endurance for heavy physical work or the ability to perform in extreme heat. There is also the possibility that, under the rigors of the profession, fat men tend to become unfat, and to remain that way.
The typical cowboy, as I have observed him, may have a paunch and little weatherboarding around his middle, but he isn't fat, and more often than not, he is thin, wiry, and trim around the waist. He has quick reflexes, good endurance, and strong hands, arms and shoulders. Upper body strength is important in this business, since many of the routine jobs on a ranch demand it: digging postholes, pulling the rods out of a windmill, lifting bales of hay and sacks of feed, holding calves down in a branding pen, and wrestling with iron-jawed horses. The cowboy may not have the build of a weight lifter or a football player, but what flesh he carries is hard and tough. Like the jackrabbit, he wouldn't be fit to eat.
A cowboy's hands tell the story of his work. You rarely see one with delicate hands. Most often the fingers are thickened by constant use, the palms rough enough to snag on delicate fabrics, the top side scarred and scabbed, and the nails bearing evidence of abuse. His face will often have a weathered look by the time he turns forty. Cowboys are exposed to wind and the constant glare of the sun, and to protect their eyes they squint. Over a period of years their eyes begin to narrow, and creases form in the corners. If cowboys survive long enough as a group to test the laws of natural selection, they may eventually come to resemble Eskimos.
This brings us to the subject of cowboy apparel. At the time I wrote the first edition of this book, there were two distinct cultural groups that had evolved out of the livestock business: the cowboy culture of the Great Plains region, to which I belonged, and the buckaroo culture of Mountain region and West Coast, about which my comrades and I knew very little. You could write at great length about the differences between these two groups, but for the sake of brevity let us sketch out a rough comparison.
Cowboys of the Great Plains evolved out of a blending of ethnic groups that included English, Scotch, Irish, German, Mexican, and Afro-American, with a sprinkling of Jewish, Italian, and other national groups. Buckaroos, on the other hand, owed large cultural debts to the influence of Spain, Mexico, and the Basques. We might say that the cowboy approach to life, work, and personal appearance tended to reflect a stubborn Anglo-Saxon practicality, while the buckaroo tradition placed a higher value on style and embellishment. In their dress and appearance, cowboys tended to be drab, and we might even say self-righteously drab. Plain-dressing was regarded as a virtue, and the cowboys with whom I worked in the seventies and eighties had nothing good to say about the garish taste of the buckaroos. Buckaroos wore shop-made boots with gaudy tops, and tucked their jeans into the boot tops to show them off. They wore a kind of knee-length chap called chinks, often decorated with conchas of brass or silver and fringed on the bottom. Buckaroos wore flamboyant hats, shirts, and spurs, and colorful silk "wild rags" around their necks (instead of our modest cotton bandanas), and their bits and bridles were decorated with braided horsehair and silver inlay, while ours were plain-vanilla.
No man on our cowboy crews of the seventies would have dared show up looking like a buckaroo. He would have been shunned and ridiculed, so strong was our aversion to peacockery, which we blamed on California, that distant quasar that produced so many mysterious cultural signals. My first awareness of buckaroo styles came from articles I read in Western Horseman magazine in the early 1980s, and I must admit that in the privacy of my own mind, I said, "This stuff is really nice!"
Apparently I wasn't the only prairie cowboy who thought so. One of the most dramatic changes to occur in cowboying since I wrote the first edition of this book is that buckaroo styles and tastes have moved through the Central Plains at a breath-taking pace. In 2003 a cowboy crew on the Canadian River will have a hard core of traditional plain-vanilla cowboys, but also younger fellows who have added buckaroo flair to their dress and equipment.
Looking back over the past twenty years, I am astonished that the change was accomplished so quickly, and without much noise or bloodshed. How did it happen? The first step, I think, came through the exposure buckaroo styles received in magazines read by cowboys, principally Western Horseman, and later American Cowboy and others. Then came the cowboy poetry movement, which began in Elko, Nevada, and spread rapidly into Texas and other Great Plains states. Cowboy poetry gatherings not only brought cowboys and buckaroos into the same auditoriums, but also gave them access to trade shows where buckaroo clothes and equipment were offered for sale. Seen up close, the elegance and superior craftsmanship of buckaroo paraphernalia were impossible to resist. All it needed was a little exposure.
Excerpted from The Modern Cowboy by John R. Erickson, Kristine C. Erickson. Copyright © 2004 John R. Erickson. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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